clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Super Bowl Origins: Part 2

NFL championship game has become a national holiday

NFL: Super Bowl Rings
Super Bowl I ring
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

As 53 years simply click off the calendar, the Super Bowl remains the biggest sports day in the world. Regardless of if you enjoy watching the game of American football or not, most likely folks end up at somebody’s Super Bowl party or at a sports bar - or any bar for that matter.

The game itself was part the merger agreement between two rival professional football leagues who each wanted to stop overpaying for the talent and had agreed to form one huge league beginning in 1970. But for the conclusion of the 1966 season, both the American Football League (AFL) and National Football League (NFL) would pit their respective league champions against each other in a final (and extra) contest.

A lot has changed since that the very first Super Bowl. The most expensive ticket was $12 as NFL commissioner Peter Rozelle wanted to insure a good turnout; which didn’t happen since one-third of the stadium remained unsold. A 30-second commercial cost $37,500.

Even the players are different today. Hall of Fame guard Forrest Gregg of the Green Bay Packers only weighed 249 pounds - a fullback or linebacker’s size today. His line-mate and fellow Hall of Famer, Jetty Kramer, was also the club’s kicker as few teams hired just a kicker or punter back then. Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Lenny Dawson who started Super Bowl I led the AFL is passer completions with 56.0, which today would place him behind every starting QB in the NFL.

Super Bowl XXVII: Dallas Cowboys v Buffalo Bills
Michael Jackson performs during the Halftime show as the Dallas Cowboys take on the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII at Rose Bowl on January 31, 1993 in Pasadena, California.
Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Before Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Aerosmith, Lady Gaga, New Kids on the Block, Gloria Estefan, Diana Ross, ZZ Top, Phil Collins or the Rolling Stones headlined the halftime show extravaganza, it was Grambling State University Marching Band, Up with People or the University of Texas Longhorn Band.

How the Super Bowl became known as the Super Bowl

Even though the first two games were officially named the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game” in 1966 and 1967, it was loosely called the “Super Bowl” by the media.

$10 ticket stub bottom “AFL-NFL World Championship Game” which would later be changed to “Super Bowl I”

Because Major League Baseball and college football were the current king of sports, a lot of what other leagues did paralleled those sports’ actions and traditions.

One of college football’s most important and cherished traditions are the season-ending bowl games. So, pro football just followed that trend. From 1961 to 1969, the NFL invented a game which was essentially for third place and was called the “Playoff Bowl.” And of course the all-star game is called the “Pro Bowl.”

Along with Rozelle, three men from each league formed a committee to iron out all the details as the merger agreement between the two leagues took 18 months. But in the meanwhile the long-awaited championship game between the two entities was being planned by these same men. One of the men was Lamar Hunt, owner of the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs which ironically played in Super Bowl I.

In the summer of 1966 with the other committee members, the discussion circled around to the championship game. Hunt inquired about whether there should be a one-week break of two-week hiatus before the championship game. Both leagues still had a championship game which crowned their league’s champion.

A bit of confusion hushed over the room as Hunt was asked which championship game he was referring to - the league championship games or the new world championship.

“You know,” Hunt told them. “The last game...the final game. The Super Bowl.”

Hunt had thought of the name while watching his children play with the Wham-O toy “Super Ball.” From that point on, the committee began loosely referring to the final game as the “Super Bowl” in their discussions about which championship games they were discussing.

NCAA Photos Archive
Super Bowl I: (l to r) Chiefs head coach Hank Stram, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Chiefs’ owner Lamar Hunt who coined the phrase “Super Bowl.”

Rozelle, who would eventually become the commissioner of the newly-merged AFL-NFL union, didn’t like the term “super” thinking it had no sophistication and was simply an ordinary term. In fact, he hated the name “Super Bowl.” The game was officially called the “AFL-NFL World Championship Game.”

In the meantime, pro football beat writers, commentators and even players began using the term “Super Bowl” and whether or not Rozelle thought the moniker was grammatically correct or not, the name stuck.

It had been suggested that the championship game needed a catchier name. But Rozelle had a suggestion for the game’s title instead. At first his suggestion was to rename the league’s all-star contest and then call this championship game the “Pro Bowl.” Another name that gained some traction was the “World Series of Football.”

Still, Rozelle was adamant that the title game to earth’s finest sports league should not be labeled something as simplistic with the word “super” attached to it. But one has to enlighten that in the 1960s the word “super” meant the pinnacle of whatever the moniker preceded. Supermodel, superpower, Superdome, Jesus Christ Superstar, super nova, supermarket, super weapon, super-organism, supersized, super heavy, SuperCenter, super stock, super-macho and Supershow suddenly became main stream usage.

Rozelle suggested “The Big One.” That idea obviously didn’t get any adhesive friction.

Tickets for the first two games were labeled “AFL-NFL World Championship Game” whereas the third installment the tickets were printed with “Third World Championship Game.” However, the words “Super Bowl” without a numeral were the headline to the game’s program. And networks had already begun the term “Super Sunday” as the first years passed along.


Besides the term "Super Bowl", which of the proposed names would you choose?

This poll is closed

  • 23%
    World Series of Football
    (5 votes)
  • 0%
    Pro Bowl
    (0 votes)
  • 38%
    The Big One
    (8 votes)
  • 38%
    AFL-NFL Championship Game
    (8 votes)
21 votes total Vote Now

NFL Films were labeling all their film canisters with the name “Super Bowl” and TV commentators were already calling it that.

The fourth installation the tickets read “Fourth World Championship Game” plus prominently the words “Super Bowl.” The official program also stated “Super Bowl” but again without a number. It is by coincidence that in that fourth game the powerful and heavily-favored Minnesota Vikings played Hunt’s Chiefs to which Kansas City shocked the football world with a 23-7 victory. The following year, with the first game after the merger, “Super Bowl V” was finally on display with the game tickets and programs.

It was official.

Tiffany & Co. Showcases Custom Designed Sports Trophies At Holiday Pop-Up
Vince Lombardi Trophy
Photo by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

The championship trophy, which was basically unnamed for the first four games, was labeled the “Vince Lombardi Trophy” in 1970 after the legendary Green Bay Packers’ coach was stricken with cancer and passed away.

The Super Bowl decides the champion of the NFL, and also the champions of the advertising universe. Inasmuch as the Super Bowl has created a mass gathering either in sports bars or at household gatherings, this splendid festival generates just as much interest in the commercials as it does the actual game itself.

Basically, the Super Bowl is the most influential amphitheater in TV promotion. In the world of advertising it is viewed as judgment day. New ad campaigns often begin their kickoff airing during the game.

Three of the four networks that carry the NFL broadcasts - CBS, FOX and NBC -alternate as host of the Super Bowl each year and pay dearly for the rights. This season alone, CBS paid $1.08 billion for NFL rights, which also included the 2019 Super Bowl.

FOX will broadcast Super Bowl LIV played at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, and announced the cost for each 30-second commercial spot averages $5.6 million.

Super Champions

As far as NFL titles, the Packers have won the most with 13 followed by the Chicago Bears (9) and New York Giants (8). The Cleveland Browns have also captured eight league titles, however, four were in the NFL while the other four were in the NFL-rival league All-America Football Conference. When the NFL accepted three clubs from the AAFC into their fold in 1950, part of the agreement of the merger was that none of the statistics or records from the former entity would be recognized in the NFL annuals.

Otto Graham Leaping to Make Touchdown
1950 NFL Championship Game - Cleveland Browns defeat the Los Angeles Rams 30-28

As far as Super Bowl winners, the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-1) and New England Patriots (6-5) have the most with six followed by the Dallas Cowboys (5-3) and San Francisco 49ers (5-1) with five each.

The Patriots have the most appearances with 11, an NFL record. The Buffalo Bills own the Super Bowl record for most consecutive championship game appearances (1991-1994) although the Browns hold the NFL record with six consecutive NFL title game appearances from 1950-1955. The Patriots and Miami Dolphins are tied with third most with three.

The sudden emergence of the Super Bowl allowed one club the ability to extend their consecutive championships. The Packers won the last NFL title before the creation of the Super Bowl in 1965. They also took the 1966 crown, plus Super Bowl I making three championships in a row. The following year, Green Bay again won the NFL title (for three consecutive league titles) and then won Super Bowl II, thus winning five consecutive championships.

On the flip-side, the Vikings and the Bills have the most losses in the Super Bowl with four each. The Bills were all consecutive whereas the Vikings were in different decades with several different starting quarterbacks.

The lone clubs to win three of four Super Bowls are the Cowboys (1993-1994, 1996) and Patriots (2002, 2004-2005). With the Patriots in this year’s Super Bowl, this marks the first time a team has played in four of five Super Bowls (2015, 2017-2019). The Browns hold the record with playing in six of seven NFL title games (1950-1955, 1957).

The Dolphins took Super Bowl VII at the conclusion of the 1972 term to become the only NFL team to finish their season unbeaten and untied with a sterling 17-0-0 record. Many NFL clubs had completed their year without any losses, but with a tie involved making Miami’s distinction that much more special.

Super Bowl Sites

Speaking of Miami, that city has hosted the most Super Bowls with 11. In the game’s beginnings, the NFL only offered the game to a warm weather climate city because of the January time slot and the lone indoor stadium was the Astrodome, home of the AFL Houston Oilers. Out of the first 25 games, only one was played in a cold environment when the 49ers defeated the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl XVI in Michigan at the Pontiac Silverdome, home of the Detroit Lions.

Vikings v Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs line up and wait for the snap against the Minnesota Vikings during Super Bowl IV at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans, Louisiana on January 11, 1970
Photo by Focus On Sport/Getty Images

New Orleans, Tampa, San Diego, Pasadena, Houston and Los Angeles were the usual cities utilized prior to the building of domed stadiums across the United States. When the St. Louis Cardinals moved southwest to Arizona, the NFL quickly snatched that location onto their annual list of suitable sites as well.

Other domed stadiums used have been: Minneapolis (1992, 2018), Atlanta (1993, 2000, and 2019) and Detroit (2006). Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014 was played outdoors in New Jersey, home of the New York Jets and Giants. This marked the first time the NFL championship game was played outside in northern confines since 1969 when the Minnesota Vikings defeated the Browns 27-7 at Minneapolis in the final “NFL Championship Game” before the merger.

The Super Bowl prompted a neutral site for the championship game. Before this, the title game in the NFL or the AFL was played at one of the game participant’s home field which made outdoor temperatures in most areas an issue on game day.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association